Some weeks ago a colleague brought this article to my attention: “Living Well” while “Doing Good”? (Missing) debates on altruism and professionalism in aid work, by Anne-Meike Fechter.
I confess that my initial reaction was to skim it quickly and then give it a quick yawn followed by an eye-roll. Just one more in an already crowded queue of aid outsiders getting flushed and hot, convinced that aid is failing because NGO expats in Phnom Penh go to parties. On second read, though, my impressions began to change. It’s a bit disconcerting to myself be under the lens of research scrutiny – normally I’m the one out in the field asking villagers those prodding, personal questions. But as uncomfortable-squirm-inducing as the article might be, I think that Ms. Fechter has hit key points. Using some of those key points as jumping off places, I’d like to invite discussion on the following:
At what point do our salaries matter? Or our lifestyles in the field? Ms. Fechter does a great job of characterizing the community-based intern or volunteer who lives in a village somewhere and then comes to the capital city and gets all moral outraged by the opulent lifestyle of the expats there. But she goes on to question the links assumed by many between aid worker sacrifice -> altruism -> effectiveness. I question it, too. To me, the argument which says that you have to be as much like the beneficiaries as possible before you can be effective is like saying that oncologists have to be cancer patients themselves in order to be good at their jobs. We’ll never be like them.Yet at the same time, I can’t help but believe that there are or ought to be limits. Over and above the abject cluelessness of the main character, shows like The Philanthropist grate precisely because the whole premise of some ridiculously rich dude getting all kinds of kudos for taking a few days off of real life now and again to swoop in and save some poor people feels vaguely hypocritical. After overhead, CEO and executive salaries are among the most hotly debated issues on charity rating websites.
So I put it to you, aid workers, students, aid outsiders alike: where should the limits be? Should aid work equal a life of deprivation as sacrifice as a matter of principle? If so, what principle, exactly? What is an appropriate salary for aid workers? Or if you can’t say a salary number, what lifestyle indicators would you point to as within or beyond the lines? Why those exactly? Be concrete.
What about local aid workers? What limits and principles apply there? I think it’s really important in this debate to consider the implications for our local colleagues. Ms. Fechter, along with a great many others (including that badly written and annoying poem by Ross Coggins), points out that by its very nature the aid industry confers on expats a level of social status they’d probably never be eligible for otherwise. Yes, yes – we travel to exotic places, have insight and perspective that our ordinary neighbors don’t, have deep wrenching experiences interacting with the bottom billion, and yet still find the time to wax melodramatic into our imported beer at the expat pub. That’s all as may be, and it may feel monumentally unfair that we all get to go home, eventually, and retire into our home country equivalent of genteel poverty. But let’s be clear: appearances aside, our supposed wealth and advantage rarely translates into any kind of real power or security for us in our world. I don’t know of any aid workers who have gone on to be, say, politicians at the Federal Government level (in the USA). Or who have gone on to run Fortune 500 companies. Heck, I can hardly think offhand of more than a handful of professional aid workers who have even gone on to hold senior leadership positions in INGOs – those slots are overwhelmingly filled with for-profit sector transplants.
Yet when it comes to hiring and compensating and retaining local staff, we very often intentionally or unintentionally create an elite class in the local context whose members absolutely and very tangibly benefit in dramatic disproportion to what they might using their skills and talents outside of the NGO world. It is common for by far the nicest house in the entire village to be the house of the INGO project coordinator. It is common for the mid-level national NGO manager or technician to use her or his contacts gained on the job to leverage a successful bid for prestigious roles in the provincial or national government. It is common for our local staff to retire early, after that working occasionally as consultants to the UN or World Bank, living a life of comfort and influence in their context far above what the expats who hired them could ever hope for in theirs. And I do not for one second begrudge our local colleagues their success – the vast majority of those I work with, if I am to be the judge, are utterly deserving. But – if we’re to make statements about the relationship between altruism and sacrifice and effectiveness of international aid workers, then we have to at some point contemplate what that all means for our colleagues who are from there.
So what do you think? Should exactly the same principles apply to expats/internationals as to locals? Is it a matter of simple fairness? Or should there be differences? What differences? Why?
Is it time to foster a collective humanitarian consciousness? Fechter argues that pretty much all discussion of development ethics to-date focuses on beneficiaries, ‘the other’, and as a result aid workers (whether local or foreign) become largely invisible. She’s right, of course: the tendency of our industry is to forefront those the work is meant to serve and their stories. And rightly so. We need to know the history. The movement to make things this way came out legitimate concerns a few decades ago that the predominant aid narrative was about aid workers and their heroic efforts. We’re right to focus discussion on the poor we claim to serve.
Yet, as I read and re-read ‘Living Well’ while ‘Doing Good’, I was repeatedly struck with the feeling that there’s really nothing in the aid world comparable to those professional fields we’re so frequently compared to. She compares our profession to nursing – a field which she says has a highly developed body of discussion around what nurses are and should be in their personal lives (my paraphrase), going on to suggest that maybe the aid world needs the same. Maybe it does. But I think that before that can really happen we need a level of collective humanitarian consciousness that we don’t currently have. Put firefighters or police officers or even physicians from around the world into the same room and before long you see a very distinct collective consciousness begin to emerge. Soldiers are famous for it. Despite differences in personal history or culture, there is an immediate bond forged by common experience and global sense of community.
I think we need the same thing in the aid world. Right now we coalesce around individual NGO brands and to a much lesser extent, technical sectors. I think, though, that if we want to make aid better, not just technically, but for us all as individual aid worker people we need to begin thinking of ourselves collectively, consciously. I’m not at all suggesting that we become less loyal to our employers or that we’ll somehow automatically agree on everything that we used to argue about. Be I do feel strongly that before we can really have fruitful conversations internally about how we ought to live – not how to do good aid work, but how to be “good”, balanced, ethical, effective aid workers – we do have to have that collective humanitarian consciousness. (Fostering that collective humanitarian consciousness was part of the intent of AidSource, by the way.)
What do you think? Is a collective humanitarian consciousness something we need? Why? How do we achieve it? Or is the whole idea a load of rubbish?
I’d love to hear your perspectives on any of the questions above in the comments thread below this post. Alternatively, consider adding to the discussion in the Work & Life section of AidSource here and here.